- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

For the second time in three days, one of the science-category Nobel Prizes was jointly awarded to a woman - a rare occurrence in the 100-plus year history of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ awards.

Israeli Ada E. Yonath became just the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry and the first since 1964. She follows in the footsteps of such esteemed female scientists as Marie Curie, who shared the 1903 prize in physics.

Ms. Yonath, 70, was honored along with Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz for their detailed mapping of cells’ protein-making factories - a key step in developing antibiotics and finding ways to defeat bacteria’s resistance to drugs.

In a press release, the academy hailed their work “for having showed what the ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level.” Some antibiotics work by interfering with the ribosomes of harmful bacteria and preventing them from infecting their host.

Reached at her home in Rehovot, Israel, where she is associated with the Weizmann Institute of Science, Ms. Yonath downplayed the relative novelty of being among so few women on the Nobel list. A Jerusalem native, she earned her doctoral degree from the Weizmann Institute in 1968.

“People talk to me about it, of course, but I look at myself as a scientist. The fact of my gender is less important,” she told The Washington Times. She will be continuing “to look at characteristics of ribosome,” she said, although not necessarily in conjunction with her fellow prize winners.

So far, two other women have won the Nobel Prize this year. Carol Greider, 48, a Johns Hopkins University professor and research scientist, and Elizabeth H. Blackburn, 60, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California at San Francisco, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday.

Ms. Greider is director of molecular biology and genetics at the Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. Both women, along with Jack W. Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, won the award for solving a crucial problem in cell biology - identifying and fully documenting chromosome activity that can be a marker of how cells age.

Thomas H. Lane, an industrial chemist in Michigan who is president of the American Chemical Society, called the recognition of a female chemist “a wonderful sign of progress” because “52 percent of all chemistry degrees are now earned by women.

“I think we attribute that to the fact if you speak to 15-year-old girls, they say they want to help people. And if you talk to 15-year-old boys, they want to make a lot of money. With chemistry you can do both,” he told The Times while on his way to talk to University of Wisconsin graduate students on “what it takes to be successful in the real world.”

The three scientists, who will share the $1.4 million award in Stockholm on Dec. 10, had worked independently, even competitively.

“It was a series of discoveries,” Ms. Yonath said in response to another media inquiry. “We still don’t know everything, but we progressed a lot.”

The scientists used X-ray crystallography to locate the positions of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that compose the ribosome. Their models revealed how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes, thus advancing knowledge of how to develop new antibacterial drugs, according to the Nobel citation.

A grand reception hosted by Yale President Richard Levin was planned Wednesday afternoon for the Milwaukee-born Mr. Steitz, 69, a Yale professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry who also is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Yale professor Peter Moore, who has worked with Mr. Steitz since they were graduate students at Harvard University in the 1960s, told The Times that it was only the third time a Yale faculty member has won the prize.

“Nobel has certain rules and one is that no prize can go to more than three individuals at a time,” he said, praising the academy’s choice of his friend and colleague. “We never doubted they would find him. … He has made a very large number of large contributions in his career, and this is the icing on what is a very substantial cake.”

The same prize “could perfectly well be given in physiology and medicine,” he noted. “But it is not inappropriate to come from chemistry. Chemists care awfully much about atoms and that was the question asked.”

Mr. Lane predicted that “what will end up happening is that other scientists will take what these three have learned and begin to design other weapons in our arsenal against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Mr. Ramakrishnan, 57, who holds American citizenship, was born in India and earned his doctoral degree in physics at Ohio University. He has worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and currently is a senior scientist and group leader at the Structural Studies Division of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

“I thought it was an elaborate joke,” he told the Associated Press about the early morning call from the academy. “I have friends who play practical jokes. I complemented him on his Swedish accent.”

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